Feb 17, 2022

‘Bullying tactics’: Richard Colbeck rebuffs calls to resign over aged care deaths

Richard Colbeck calls to resign
Image: ABC News.

Aged Care Services Minister, Richard Colbeck, is in the spotlight again, after retorting during a heated Senate estimates hearing that Labor is engaging in “bullying”. 

It comes after Mr Colbeck judged the mortality rate across the nation’s residential homes not to be “an indicator” as to whether he should remain in his job. 

The scene was set for a heated exchange as Mr Colbeck fronted the Senate’s community affairs committee on Wednesday, as estimates sought to uncover details and data related to the health and aged care departments, The Guardian Australia reports.

Contextually, the numbers are stark … 2022 has seen hundreds of deaths and thousands of incidents of COVID-19 in aged care homes. Mr Colbeck also has been largely denounced for opting to be present at a cricket match instead of appearing before a previous Senate inquiry. 

Minister Colbeck answered, “No, I don’t believe so.”

Further into the hearing, Mr Colbeck professed he had never given his resignation to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

Greens senator Janet Rice highlighted the death count in aged care, and queried whether Mr Colbeck believed himself to be the best positioned person to function as Aged Care Services Minister. 

“I don’t accept that deaths in the community or deaths in aged care is an indicator, so I reject your assertion in the context of that, completely,” Mr Colbeck returned.

“It’s a nice political point for you to try and make, but I continue to focus my attention on doing my job.”

He continued, “We are in the middle of a global pandemic, and the completely tragic result of that is people will catch the virus across all parts of the community, and some of them will die. We’ve seen that in all parts of the community.”

Presented to the committee was data from the last three years: 691 deaths occured in aged care in the first two month of 2022; across the entirety of 2021, 282 passed away; and 685 died across the 12 months of 2020. 

For months aged care personnel and unions have raised red flags surrounding the effects of COVID isolation and infection enforcements, with an increasingly shrinking labour force, leaving remaining staff overworked, under-resourced and subsequently burnt out through the Omicron wave. 

Aged care homes have announced staff unavailability has caused some senior residents to be neglected without water, food or assistance in going to the bathroom or showering.

He did recognise that it was a “mistake” for him to be present at the Hobart Test cricket match on 14 January. In the lead-up to being present at the match, Mr Colbeck had officially declined a committee request to front a hearing, stating “urgent and critical” management in striving against Omicron. 

“It’s very clear the measures we’ve put in place during the pandemic have improved the circumstances in residential aged care … have improved the performance of the sector, improved the operations of infection control processes within the sector, and that’s led to a lower transfer rate of infections in the community to infections in aged care,” Mr Colbeck explained.

Put to the Aged Care Services Minister if he assessed the sector to be in “crisis”, he said he refused to use that term, recalling that he had “been very careful with my language”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, described the sector in “crisis” as of 4 February, stating, “I can tell you, that’s how it feels for us” – and the same day he disclosed that 1,700 Australian Defence Force (ADF) staff would be positioned to swiftly assist the sector. 

Data coming to light during the estimates committee hearing shows that just 106 ADF personnel have currently been deployed into a total of 21 aged care residences. 

Outgoing Health Minister Greg Hunt said in Question Time that the most recent statistics reported 116 ADF personnel currently active in facilities, with a further 17 acting in coordinating positions. Updating further, ADF personnel are said to have been active in 25 facilities, with staff currently active in 19, and further staff having “completed” their tasks at six sites. 

“This is too little, too late,” Ms O’Neil rebuffed.

“Aged care has been in its worst crisis ever, since Christmas, and now in mid-February – after the very worst of the staff shortages have passed – we now get the ADF trickling into facilities.”

At times Mr Colbeck and Mr Watt spoke heatedly over the top of one another, each in turn accusing the other’s party of ineffectual policies surrounding aged care. 

Mr Colbeck claimed Mr Watt was using “bullying tactics” and argued strongly against the allegations the aged care sector was struggling under pressure. 

“There have been a lot of people who wanted to talk down the aged care sector over recent years, and yes there are some issues that need to be addressed. That’s why we’ve got over $18 billion on the table to reform the sector. We acknowledge it,” Mr Colbeck stated.

“But every time you tell them how bad it is, you tell them how bad they are. They say to me, ‘When are you going to stop talking the sector down?’”

Mr Watt countered: “This system is in crisis because of you.”

Mr Colbeck highlighted the government’s measure to arrange 2.5 million rapid antigen tests for aged care sector use per week. 

Early in the hearing, Lt Gen John Frewen, the government’s pandemic vaccine task force commander, conveyed that the administering of booster jabs in aged and disability care was his personnel’s “highest priority”. 

He stated that 10 million Australians, around 60% of the population that is eligible, had already been boosted. This figure rises to 80% for those aged 70 and above. 

Frewen detailed how the entirety of aged care homes across the nation had received a visit by a mobile booster clinic, and around 450 had received a clinic visit twice, with the remaining to also receive a visit again. 

Data shows that 86% of eligible residents in aged care facilities, or 78% of residents in total, have so far been administered a booster jab.

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